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A grant is boosting civic reasoning and discourse at Marquette University

Professors said there is a 'thirst' to talk across difference

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Raynor Memorial Libraries
 Raynor Memorial Libraries at Marquette University. Photo courtesy of Marquette University.

At a time when Americans’ top description of the current state of politics is “divisive,” Wisconsin universities are looking for ways students can productively talk about public issues.

Marquette University faculty are developing a curriculum in civic reasoning and discourse skills for first year students. The goal is to address the need for students to learn how to weigh different points of view, critically examine evidence and productively engage with people they disagree with.

The curriculum was piloted last year and will expand in the fall semester. An almost $150,000 grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, a philanthropic organization, is advancing the project.

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A ‘dramatic’ need

The curriculum is structured around dialogue, deliberation and debate across a range of topics like climate change or artificial intelligence.

Amelia Zurcher, professor of English and one of the grant recipients, said there is a “dramatic” need at Marquette for productive problem solving.

“Students desperately want to talk about difficult issues with each other, they need to talk about them so that they can formulate really educated and rational and evidence-based views,” Zurcher said.

In 2021, the Civic Learning and Democracy Engagement Coalition said civic inquiry and democracy engagement must be an expected part of a college education.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a group promoting free speech on college campuses, found students at Marquette felt their speech was restricted.

Almost 60 percent of students say they are worried about damaging their reputation because someone misunderstands something they have said or done. More than half of the students surveyed said they have self-censored on campus at least once or twice a month.

Amber Wichowsky, chair of political science at Marquette and the other grant recipient, said the data reflects what she sees on campus.

“There is some concern that students are going to say the wrong thing, to be called out. There’s concern that they’re going to be misperceived by their peers by speaking up or articulating their preferences,” Wichowsky said.

Curriculum piloted in the Honors Program

Two courses piloted the curriculum last academic year. According to surveys, Wichowsky said students who took the course reported greater competence in resolving disagreements. Students also reported being more confident and comfortable participating in constructive dialogue and that they had learned something that changed how they understood a concept.

“So we really saw that as evidence of moving the needle, if you will, in a positive direction,” Wichowsky said.

The programming is building on the work of the Marquette Civic Dialogues Program. Since its launch in 2021, they have seen a growth in attendance. Wichowsky said the classroom is a place to have more conversations outside homogenous groups.

The curriculum will be the foundation for a first-year experience course in Marquette’s Core Curriculum that is currently being piloted in the Honors Program and is expected to launch more broadly in three years. 

The grant from The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, taking effect July 1, will help expand the curriculum to reach more students, measure the program’s success and train more faculty and peer facilitators on how to implement the lessons.

John Churchill, director of programs at the nonprofit, said civil discourse in higher education has recently become one of the foundations’ priorities.

“Historically, higher education has been one of the places where Americans have learned to do (civil discourse) well,” Churchill said. “In at least some contexts in some kinds of classes, dialoguing across difference constructively is a very good way to learn the material.”

Zurcher said the skills taught in the class are necessary for a high-functioning democracy and workplace.

“Students come in, and they think leadership means getting everyone to think like you do,” she said. “And actually really good leadership is surfacing all the different perspectives and disagreements in the group.”

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